‘Go Set a Watchman’ books missing text from pages

17 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

“Go Set A Watchman” review: Her world wasn’t ready for this Harper Lee.

Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck (left) in the film ‘To Kill A Mockingbird,’ is a white supremacist in this new novel, unlike his character in Harper Lee’s first book.The Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird is a civil-rights hero – a larger-than-life, heroic figure who fearlessly defended a black man falsely accused of raping a white girl. The story of its discovery—it was actually Lee’s first draft of Mockingbird—and publication reads like a novel of its own, and the whole affair has been mired in controversy. It was airing as part of the general enthusiasm that preceded the release of Go Set a Watchman, the controversial follow-up to Mockingbird that now stalks Harper Lee’s classic novel like a shadow.

But now it’s here, along with the reviews and the disillusioning discovery that Atticus Finch, American literature’s favorite paragon of justice, is in fact a bigot. The discrepancy is only a source of cognitive dissonance for those who retain the naive notion that white people who engage in progressive actions can escape white, racial socialization and the system of white supremacy. It’s important for every single person to read this book at least once in their lives, because what it teaches cannot be summed up in any other way.

As Al Sharpton noted to the Observer: “Finch reflects the reality of finding out that a lot of those we thought were on our side harbored some personal different feelings”. Robinson, of course, is found guilty anyway, and the trial scene ends with a defeated Atticus walking out of a courtroom that is empty but for the balcony, which is where the black observers are consigned to sit.

What we’ve long been told, and which is proven beyond doubt now, is that Lee had what every aspiring writer should be glad to get: a remarkably astute and talented editor. They all rise to honor him (“Your father’s passing,” the Reverend Sykes tells Atticus’ daughter Scout, an emotional gilding of the lily that achieves it goal of drawing out even more tears), and Atticus, ringed by these black supplicants, takes on the aspect of a Christ-like savior.

The question of whether it may do any good morally is more complicated, and circles around the outrage so many readers report at discovering Atticus Finch, that beloved imaginary Abraham Lincoln of the civil rights movement, spouting racist bile. When I found out that A) Michael Gove was scrapping it and B) We were doing Of Mice and Men, I decided it was time to pick up a copy, nicely timed with the prequel coming out. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote Notes on the State of Virginia, which included praise of individual liberty, firmly believed (or at least wrote) that “the negro” was inferior and even animalistic (though that did not stop him from raping Sally Hemmings, a teenager enslaved on his own plantation). It is a powerful scene, underscoring the heartbreaking injustice of it all; but it’s impossible not to be jarred by the imagery, which, to put it kindly, feels a little dated.

The devotion that readers can feel to imaginary characters is a strange and wonderful thing, at the heart of the cognitive mystery that is the reading process. And the only thing that crossed my mind after my fingers turned the final page, were confused and angry thoughts about why this book hadn’t come in to my life sooner. Instead of consigning the draft to the waste-paper basket or even getting Lee to improve on the existing text, she picked on the most engaging sections and, most astoundingly, gained the writer’s trust enough for Lee to follow her editor’s instincts and start the book from scratch. Abraham Lincoln, perhaps credited with being the greatest white hero of them all, admitted, “if I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it.” Yet to this day he is still described as “the great emancipator”.

Because it’s internalised, reading closes the gap of detachment we feel watching others enact a story; characters we only imagine entwine with our own thoughts, histories and perceptions. For any that don’t know what the book is about, I’m going to describe it briefly, because the beauty of the book is that the reader follows the story with the characters. One recognizes Lee’s easy conversational style of writing immediately—even if the novel tends to sermonize and gets rather clumpy in the latter half.

Watchman has served as an occasion for many to argue that Mockingbird is the book that is fatally flawed, a novelistic manifestation of the structural racism that continues to permeate our lives like air. Even Calpurnia, the household cook Jean Louise calls her “black mother,” has closed her face to the woman she loved as a girl. “(Jean Louise) sank into a deep armchair and considered how all occasions had made her poor indeed.

If we have grown up admiring an idealised father figure like Atticus, incorporating him into our value system, then the sense of betrayal at finding him espousing immoral views may be real, and profound. The HarperCollins press team wouldn’t let us talk to Taylor, but the design is clearly meant to evoke the original cover for Mockingbird, which featured a lush tree with thick, green leaves and the same font. My aunt is a hostile stranger, my Calpurnia won’t have anything to do with me, Hank is insane, and Atticus — something’s wrong with me, it’s something about me.

It is meant to convey that the new story is an extension of the original book. “It clearly relates to the old cover and that time period,” says Jason Booher, the art director at Blue Rider Press, a Penguin imprint. “It’s saying something new is happening, with the hit-you-over-the-head symbolism of the tree, which doesn’t have the leaves on it. Thus, McIntosh advocates for black women’s leadership, at all costs, because all other groups that have some semblance of privilege seem unwilling to surrender it. Scout has an older brother, Jem, and they live with their father, Atticus: Atticus is a lawyer, and possibly one of my favourite characters of all time.

Malcolm Gladwell also cited Freedman in a critique of Mockingbird in The New Yorker in 2009, which features a dismantling of another famous scene, this one of Atticus defending Tom Robinson from a mob of would-be lynchers led by Walter Cunningham: The mob eventually scatters, and the next morning Finch tries to explain the night’s events to Scout. Scout must come to terms with the revelation that her father is not Saint Atticus, leaving Watchman’s readers to struggle with the same problem: we’re all Scout Finch now, shocked at discovering our father figure has feet of Alabama clay. An inclusion in this circle of friends is Henry, who is introduced to us as suitor to 26-year-old Jean Louise, and who has secured Atticus Finch’s affections in place of his dead son and Henry’s childhood buddy Jem. Initially, Watchman seems to offer a more adult perspective than Mockingbird’s tightly focused child’s eye, indicating that Jean Louise will finish losing her innocence, dragging several million readers unwillingly with her.

You’re willing to be a white ally, but you feel you must be in charge of even, say, the racial justice organization.” But calling the shots is problematic without fully supporting the overall mission, particularly when white support for the cause can disappear at the slightest doubt about black narratives, especially around policing and the deconstruction of “the new Jim Crow,” as legal educator and author Michelle Alexander describes the prison-industrial complex. Cunningham is, to his mind, the right sort of poor white farmer: a man who refuses a W.P.A. handout and who scrupulously repays Finch for legal work with a load of stove wood, a sack of hickory nuts, and a crate of smilax and holly. Although the disclosures about Atticus are repellent, one hopes that adults can withstand an imaginary encounter with nastiness (as well as the imaginary death of another important character). He calls the cover “a pastiche, and a parody” and thinks HarperCollins missed a chance to tell a compelling story. “[Watchman] was written in the ‘50s, but it was published in 2015,” he says. “There’s so much more that’s interesting how the book came to be—it’s sort of time travel in a cool way.

His wisdom gave a sense of continuity throughout the novel, and seeing how his words impacted his children, and how subtly in awe they were of his presence was done with a skill I rarely see in fiction. It’s something that originated in the past but is now being published now, and that isn’t reflected in the cover.” He says the cover looks like it was chosen by a marketing team, rather than by a designer and for its merits as a book jacket. “The designer would take the opportunity to do something new with this. Design is a byproduct of a situation, a set of circumstances, and you can clearly see that the designer was not in control of this.” Sahre isn’t alone in his thinking. Perhaps Watchman will prompt a more complex debate about the role of racism in Mockingbird, where it is often more a plot function than a moral dilemma. Cornerstone, which is publishing Watchman in the UK, chose to go with another look than the US version. “There was a little concern about it looking like it had actually been published in the ‘50s,” says Glenn O’Neil, the publisher’s deputy art director.

As the legal scholar Monroe Freedman has written, “It just happens that Cunningham’s blind spot (along with the rest of us?) is a homicidal hatred of black people.” [The New Yorker] In a fortuitous coincidence, the other important book published this week was Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who more than anyone else in recent times has abided by James Baldwin’s dictum to “force our [white] brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.” Coates revealed in an interview with Slate that he has never even read Mockingbird and is not interested in doing so, which can be interpreted as an indication of the irrelevance of Mockingbird to the black experience, even as it remains absolutely essential to the white understanding of America’s racist past. Atticus has no reality off the page, they point out, and it is true that Atticus hasn’t been skulking around for 50 years hoping no one would out him as a racist.

O’Neil and his team chose the design because “they had a similar rhythm, and it seemed like a good opportunity to show that they’re historically and graphically related.” O’Neil’s team published some rejected ideas on design blog It’s Nice That. Carter wrote in a rare positive review of Watchman, “[W]e perhaps ought to recall the historian Gordon Wood’s admonition not to judge the past by the standards of the present.” But in this era, the standards of the present have had an immense impact on the literature that is deemed appropriate for consumption. When Jean Louise is at the apex of her struggle with what she thought she knew, and what she has discovered, her uncle offers a suggestion that might still be as current today: “You’ve no doubt heard some pretty offensive talk since you’ve been home, but instead of getting on your charger and blindly striking it down, you turned and ran. The parade of Saul Bass-inspired, vintage film noir-style posters makes clear just how difficult it was to resist a retro homage—and, indeed, HarperCollins didn’t.

The novel, as we learn now, is not a love story, not even an account of the racial divide that put American society in such turmoil during this period, but set against this background, an examination of a father-daughter relationship. Columbia University announced this year that it will not include Ovid’s Metamorphoses in its introductory humanities course for freshmen, following protests by students who said they were offended by its passages of sexual violence. You said, in effect, ‘I don’t like the way these people do, so I have no time for them.’ You’d better take time for ’em, honey, otherwise you’ll never grow. …

Chip Kidd, a cover designer at Penguin, notes that, beyond directly referencing Mockingbird‘s original cover, the composition and theme of Watchman—intentionally or not—echoes that of the first edition of Atlas Shrugged. “I find that a bit curious.” Is the homage so wrong? It would have been remarkable to see what Lee would have made of that if she had worked at the novel from this angle for the three-odd years that it took to rewrite it to Mockingbird.

Designer Gabriele Wilson (a teacher of Taylor’s at Parsons School of Design) doesn’t think so. “This was a wise choice to connect the books,” she says. “I think a very different refresh would be a mistake.” Still, designers who adhere to an old design idea sacrifice the context of the time. The widespread concern over what Atticus is “really” like surely stems in part from this awareness of the character’s entanglement in a very real history of violence and profound injustice, a toxic actuality that all too obviously lingers. Lee even scrambles through Scout’s disillusionment with her father, which is shown less through actions than lengthy speeches followed in quick succession by different people. But that also dilutes the significance of using it again here, because it doesn’t hark so specifically back to the ’50s, as much as it’s another period trope.

Universality is a cliché, of course, the stuff of book jackets and movie posters, which treat love and happiness like some homogenous substance that oozes out of the communal pie. Yes, it possibly could have, for the Scout who found her father “satisfactory” in Mockingbird is vastly unchanged in Watchman, and the plot of this novel depends so much on the fact that she hero-worshipped her father all the way into adulthood. But in another sense, universality is the premise of all art, the idea that another’s mind, another’s creation, can be entered and absorbed, that we are not atomized individuals incapable of connection. Interestingly, while we are told this fact repeatedly in Watchman, we saw it in Mockingbird, in little things like the comfort that Scout derived from clambering on to Atticus’ lap as he read his newspapers, and the intensity of her (usually unsuccessful) desire not to shame her father. Baldwin, presciently capturing our moment, rejected this notion, writing, “In some subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the Stones of Paris, to the Cathedral at Chartres, and the Empire State Building a special attitude.

Then there is the astounding confession from Jack Finch to his niece, Scout, that he was in love with her mother; it barely causes a flutter in their conversation or in the novel thereafter. Yet I, too, have never felt what Baldwin describes in the above passage; I can live in his mind as easily as I can live in the narrative persona known as Scout, and I consider both part of a universal heritage.

After all, it can’t be said that Mockingbird’s basic message of racial justice is ambiguous, even if the message and its messenger are colored by their times. Some are discomfited by the paternalism good white characters demonstrate toward black ones in Mockingbird, although others counter that this is historically realistic: paternalism was a common attitude in the Jim Crow south.

True, but Mockingbird heartily endorses Atticus’s morality, and his values are rather more dubious than the book, or many of its readers, care to admit. Atticus’ famous line is, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” In its folksy way, this could stand as a motto for literature as a whole.

Lynch mobs are populated by decent folk who can be shamed out of violence by small children; the threats of torture and mutilation that went with lynching are dismissed as a “blind spot”. If it is impossible for a black person in this country to see himself in Atticus Finch, only poor Tom Robinson next to him, then it just goes to show what a sorry state we’re in. In Mockingbird, Atticus tells Scout that the Ku Klux Klan was “a political organisation more than anything” that briefly emerged “way back about nineteen-twenty” but “they couldn’t find anybody to scare”. Atticus gives a long speech towards the novel’s end defending paternalistic racism, explaining that black people are too childish to be given power.

After revealing Atticus’s segregationist views, Watchman passes the moral torch from Atticus to his brother, Jack, who is avowedly accommodationist, advising Scout to accept what she cannot change. Uncle Jack also argues, and Scout likewise accepts, that the Klan is perfectly harmless as long as it is merely a bunch of “fools” parading around in sheets.

Watchman finally compounds all this ardent paternalism by insinuating that Atticus’s racism, while objectionable, is also a fatherly gift he has given his daughter to help her separate from him. Once Mayella has served her plot function, the book forgets all about her, sparing no further pity despite Atticus’s constant injunctions to cultivate empathy. In Watchman, the Robinson trial is just a passing anecdote, with more realistic details: the girl who accuses the black man of rape is 14, and Atticus’s defence is not that the man didn’t consent (as is the case in Mockingbird) but that the girl did. There is no mention of incest in the trial: instead, another “white trash” daughter is made pregnant by her father in a different incident, confusing the young Scout about pregnancy. In neither case is there any suggestion that white-trash daughters might object to being raped by their fathers; these girls are nugatory, left to disappear back into their backwoods existence.

This implicitly exculpates everyone else of “her kind”, who can’t help that they were born racist any more than black people can help being born childish. And it means there was no hypocrisy, no treachery: Atticus did not betray his principles when his power was threatened, but is to be admired for upholding his (racist) ideals. In 1949, Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote a song called “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” for their hit show South Pacific, in which a soldier sings: “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid / Of people whose eyes are oddly made, / And people whose skin is a different shade, / You’ve got to be carefully taught.” (When the show toured the American south, demands were made that the song be cut; Rodgers and Hammerstein flatly refused.) For that matter, Mark Twain imagined Huckleberry Finn rejecting the racism of his society in 1884. Watchman ends almost a century later with a purely accommodationist image, as Jean Louise learns to stop bumping her head against an unyielding environment. Some may argue that dwelling on identity politics obscures other questions, but both books concern identity politics from start to finish, and neither quite achieves the wisdom it seeks.

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